Monday, November 12, 2007

Acclaim for Pilot Schools Prompts Debate

As an example of the challenges met by Boston’s experimental pilot schools, a humanities teacher at Boston Arts Academy, Abdi Ali, talked about a gifted student from the Dominican Republic. The student lacked reading skills in English and his native Spanish, but he had what Ali said might be thought of as a primary language: a sense of color and design. So, in addition to work in visual arts, the student was trying to learn reading by telling stories from pictures.

“We have to expand our notion of what kind of students are coming to our schools,” said Ali.

Expanding notions is what pilot schools such as Boston Arts Academy have been doing since 1994. Freed from mandates of the Boston Public School (BPS) district and work rules of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), the pilots have been laboratories for innovation in curriculum, teaching practices, longer school days, and even the way performance is evaluated. The schools have long been popular, and their acclaim has been supported by test results. But it was only last week that a new four-year study by the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) showed that Boston’s pilot high schools get significantly better results while working mainly with students of color from poor families—the same population that dominates the BPS outside elite exam schools. The results were measured mainly by MCAS scores, graduation rates, and indicators of engagement such as attendance and out-of-school suspension rates.

When the findings were presented Friday, the disagreement at a panel discussion hosted by The Boston Foundation was much less about the pilot school advantages than how they can be multiplied. Only one new pilot school has opened in Boston in the last for years, though the new contract with the BTU aims for more openings or conversions. The disagreement was also about whether pilot schools had reached a tipping point: are they so much better that they have gone from being experimental exceptions to a whole new standard?

“The advice is to unstuck the pilot process in Boston right away,” said the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, Paul S. Grogan.

“I think it’s inevitable the kind of structural changes the pilot schools represent,” he said, “will be universal in the future around the country.”

Some common features of pilot schools include what CCE describes as a “small, personalized size,” with a customized curriculum and teaching strategy. They also have longer hours and an attendance rate much higher than that of other BPS students outside the exam schools. The higher attendance alone amounts roughly two weeks of study. Students in pilot schools also have a lower rate of out-of-school suspensions.

CCE Executive Director Dan French says the pilot schools put “much greater emphasis on performance indicators” such as student portfolios. Ali says teachers also spend more time talking to each other and working with students in ways less fragmented by subject matter. As French put it, “every teacher is an advisor in most pilot schools.”

Grogan says the structural autonomy that enables pilot schools to outperform other BPS schools is “absolutely essential.” As one result, he noted, all pilot schools and charter schools have a longer day.

“That’s one of the kinds of things that burst forth,” he said, “when you have that kind of freedom.”

BTU President Richard Stutman asked whether the pilot school difference might be explained by demographics. The answer from CCE is that students entering pilot high schools are less likely to show signs of risk for dropping out, to be English Language Learners, or to have severe learning disabilities. A high percentage of students entering pilot schools—roughly one-quarter—are also from outside the BPS (while much of the 16% outside enrollment in BPS high schools is thought to be from immigrant families).

Instead of accepting students by lottery, most pilot schools have an application process. Though the CCE found pilots are better in narrowing the racial gap in achievement, and in the achievement of students with risk factors, it also acknowledged the effect of self-selection: “good schools attract the interest of a disproportionately high number of college-bound students.” Since those students vastly outnumber the available seats in pilot schools, there’s reason to believe more options with at least the characteristics of pilot schools could get similar results.

“There are no obstacles to implementing those reforms in any other school in the city,” said Stutman.

But Ali said “contractual complications” sometimes create a culture that forces thinking “in terms of money and not in terms of what we care about.” Also vouching for the benefits of autonomy was the headmaster of Boston Community Leadership Academy, Nicole Bahnam.

“It’s all of us who own the school,” she said. “It’s a real ‘we’ of running the school.”

In addition to pilot schools, Boston families have also been able to choose from other new options: the charter schools outside the BPS, and the more specialized “learning communities” that were created by subdividing some of Boston’s district high schools. Grogan finds the changes at district high schools less promising than the pilot school ventures, despite the acclaim for some learning communities, such as the Excel High School in South Boston.

“There has been data from around the country,” said Grogan, “saying the smaller high schools all by themselves don’t provide much.”

Stutman warned that pilot schools could become too much like the charter schools with high-achieving graduates and a large percentage of freshmen who leave before grade 12.

“You are setting up a series of boutique schools,” he said, “that will never, never educate the mainstream Boston student.”

If anything, the CCE report questions the potential for pilot schools among English Language learners and students with more severe learning disabilities. That might be considered beyond the mainstream, or on the edge. But, as Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson pointed out, more than one-third of the BPS students come from homes where English is not the main language.

Though Johnson called the CCE findings “very exciting,” she warned against a rush to generalize. Figures showing an approach that works better for students across the board, she cautioned, can obscure problems with sub-groups, such as black and Latino males. And she said school performance depends not only on structure, but on other factors such as leadership and school culture.

“I think small matters,” she said, “but it only matters if you have good teachers teaching in these settings who care.”

There was little talk at the panel discussion about whether pilot schools were more expensive than other non-exam schools. The pilot schools do have smaller class sizes, and the new BTU contract requires additional pay for teachers who work longer. Even the CCE recommendations treat pilot schools as a model for change within the current system. While the CCE calls for expanding the number of pilot schools, it also says the assignment process should help families make “informed, intentional” choices among all the Boston Public Schools.

“Where families are actively engaged in making decisions about where their child goes to school,” said Johnson, “they tend to be more actively engaged in the school.”

The BTU plans to add one of the new pilot schools, but Johnson says others will probably have to wait until September of 2009.

“We want to make sure,” she said, “that equity is a key part of the work that we do.”